Is Turkey A European Country?

Turkey has been a topic of various discussions, mostly because of the political situation in the country as well as its relation with the ongoing crises in the Middle East. Most people view Turkey as a Middle Eastern country, some say it is European. Technically, Turkey is a Eurasian country, as it has land both in Asia and Europe, just like The Russian Federation. But we do not use this term because it is most of the time out of context when we talk about Turkey. And geographical location of any country is not much of use in describing a country or a cluster of countries. Take Middle East for example. Egypt is a North African country but is considered a part of the Middle East by most people. Turkey is part of the Middle East even though it has a tiny land in Europe. Cyprus is a EU member but it is in the Middle East. Categorizing countries as we do is totally a human invention and we do it on certain factors, which do not make sense when we consider geography or just look at the map. This invention is driven by history, international relations, religions, and to some degree, geographical location. Defining Turkey as European or Middle Eastern is no different. Let’s find out the reasons why this Eurasian country is European or Middle Eastern, or both.

Geographical Location of Turkey
Map of the Middle East - Wikimedia Commons
Map of the Middle East – Wikimedia Commons

Turkey is located both in Asia and Europe. Anatolia, the Asian part of the country, is a peninsula making up ninety-five percent of the landmass. The rest five percent is located in the Balkans, called East Thrace (in Turkish, Trakya).  Geographically speaking, Turkey is a Middle Eastern country. Most of its neighbors, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, are in the Middle East compared to Greece and Bulgaria in the Balkans, and Georgia and Armenia in the Caucasus. (Nakhchivan, an exclave of Azerbaijan neighboring Turkey, is probably more Caucasian than Middle Eastern, but let’s keep things simple.) Turkey is surrounded by three seas, the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean and has an inland sea, the Marmara Sea.

Atlas of Turkey – Wikimedia Commons

Turkey’s position in the world is between the crossroads, the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean to the south, the Balkans to the west, Asia and the Caucasus to the east. But if we were to take geography as our source of determining the country’s middle-easterness or europeanness, it would definitely be defined as Middle Eastern. Its geographical location is mostly in what we consider the Middle East, the majority of neighboring countries are in the Middle East or in Asia. In this respect, it is a given that Turkey is geographically a predominant Middle Eastern country. But geography alone is not a factor when we define Turkey’s geopolitical status or that of any other country.

A Geopolitic History

The only reason why we ponder on this question is clearly because of Turkey’s distinctive and significant geopolitic location in the World. It neighbors the Fertile Crescent, where the first signs of any civilization is known to have appeared, the Black Sea and the Medditerranean are connected through its straits. It connects the Caucacus to the Balkans, it provides the most direct land route from the Persian Gulf to Europe. Just before the thirteenth century kicked off, Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, was founded in western Anatolia as a Beylik. Back then, there were several Turkish Beyliks on the peninsula. The Ottomans were lucky in that they were on the western frontier neighboring the Eastern Roman Empire, while most other Beyliks were fighting for power among themselves, Ottomans were conducting raids against the Byzantines and expanding westward. The Ottomans were lucky in their fight against the “infidels” on their western border, as a result of which they avoided the rivalry among the Turkish beyliks on the peninsula. Ever since its foundation, the Ottomans extended their territory mostly wesward. Even today, we can observe this expansion by looking at Ottoman monuments in Anatolia, apart from Western Anatolia, there are not many Ottoman remains in the rest of the region, whereas one could see numerous examples of Ottoman architecture all over the Balkans. The peak moment of the Ottoman expansion was when Suleyman the Magnificent sieged the city of Vienna in 1529.

Relations with Western Europe

This westward expansion proved to be not only territorial, especially after the French Revolution. Western ideas began sneaking into the Empire, that is people in the Empire became more familiar with what’s happening in the West, as of end of eighteenth century, especially under the rule of Selim III. Alemdar Mustafa Pasha, a commander in the Ottoman Army, was one of the pioneers in the Empire who helped Mahmud II ascend to the Ottoman throne, a Sultan that modernized the Empire with Western ideas. This was due to the developments in Western Europe now known as the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, and military defeats the Empire suffered. The need to ‘reform’ the Empire was felt when the Empire wasn’t doing well enough militarily. The first reforms, hence, were done in the Army. Reforms in other parts of daily life and affairs across the Empire were unfolded throughout the the nineteenth century to keep up with the West. The Tanzimat era began with the reign of Abdülmecid I in which a vast number of social and economic reforms were carried out. First post offices were introduced, finance system of the Empire was remodelled after that of the French, ID cards were issued and so on. These reforms and translations of Western literature gave way to establishment of certain institutions and ideas that took a firm root in the Republican era, the first parliament was opened during this century, first Western literary genres were introduced and a great deal of French words started entering Turkish around this time. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after its defeat in WWI, the newly founded Republic undertook a series of modernizations and aimed to institute a series of reforms what we can refer to as ‘westernization’.

So, Turkey is, literally, in the crossroads where many different cultures meet and probably it is one of the earliest ‘melting pots’ in the world history given its closeness to the Fertile Crescent, Mediterranean, and the Caucusus. And as a country, it has been influenced by pieces of Perso-Arabian culture to ideas from the West. There can be found many examples of these interactions both in the country in the form of monuments, architecture, but also in the Turkish language itself or the customs and traditions in the country. Since it is located in a diverse region, it is quite not possible to refer to the whole country as European. But if we take a look at its history, one might possibly say it is partially (and maybe, historically and politically) European. But again, that depends on where you look at the matter.